The past few days have been a whirlwind — we’re now in Athens so I’m trying to get caught up. The original plans for after Sarajevo had been to go to Banja Luka to meet with Aleksandar Zholja of Network for Building Peace, but he ended up being in Sarajevo while we were there so I met with him there. I had also planned to go to Osijek, Croatia to meet with the people at the Center for Peace, Nonviolence, and Human Rights but I never heard back from them. (Osijek and neighboring Vukovar had been the scenes of some of the heaviest fighting in 1991). So we changed plans and spent a full day at the Plitvice Lakes national park in central Croatia and an afternoon in Zagreb. When I was a kid I used to hear a lot about Plitvice and how beautiful it as, so going there fulfilled a long-standing bucket list dream; it was splendid. More photos to follow. We put a lot of mileage on the rental car, a “Skoda” hatchback. Hope they get exported to the US soon as it was awesome.
Last Thursday (7/16) we met with representatives of two different peace-making/reconciliation groups: Adnan Hasanbegovic of Center for Nonviolent Action (CNA) in the morning, and Goran Bubal and Aleksandar Zholja of the Sarajevo and Banja Luka offices respectively of Network for Building Peace in the afternoon. In between the two meetings we had lunch at a Turkish chain restaurant in the amazing Sarajevo City Center — a new, upscale mall financed by the Al Shiddi Group of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one of the many buildings reshaping the Sarajevo skyline. It is very near the Holiday Inn Hotel which had a singular history leading up to the 1984 Winter Olympics, as well as during the 1992-95 war.
CENTER FOR NONVIOLENT ACTION:
CNA was started in 1997 in Sarajevo (with an office in Belgrade opening a few years later), shortly after the end of the wars (though the conflict in Kosovo had not yet ended). It was and still is comprised of people from all the different ethnic groups of former Yugoslavia. They came together bound by a common commitment to work for peace, understanding, dealing with the past, and reconciliation among the groups within the former Yugoslavia. As Adnan said “this is not just a job for me, this is something that comes from my very heart and soul. That is how we all feel and that is why we all do what we have been doing for so many years.” CNA has produced numerous publications, conducts training sessions throughout the region, is involved in international forums (both hosting them and participating in other countries), and works with veterans bringing former combatants together.
It is this latter that particularly interested me: without some outside motivating force driving people to deal their past and work toward reconciliation, how do they reach veterans and what draws these vets together? In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered a tangible outcome (amnesty) which motivated former perpetrators to come forward and confess to what they had done. But where is the “stick” here? Where the “carrot” when there is no pressure from any of the governments (in fact, it seems to serve certain agendas to let the nationalism and hatred continue to fester…)?
Adnan described the process. The CNA team begins by contacting veterans’ groups and explains to them what the purpose of their work is. They are committed to complete transparency (apparently there is a high level of mistrust about NGO’s — Non Governmental Organizations — in the whole region “maybe you are actually CIA…”). But in the region, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), 30-40% of men were combatants. It is literally true that every day you can see your former enemy. Both Adnan and another member of the Sarajevo CNA team are veterans themselves, so they have great credibility with the veterans’ groups. A veteran talking about peace carries a powerful message.
They find a generally positive response among the veterans’ groups. Paradoxically, as with the mothers Dj of Civic Initiatives in Belgrade spoke about, former enemy combatants have more common with each other than they do with non-combatants. They are all wounded (whether physically, psychologically, or both), many have issues with families, they’ve all experienced violence and so there is shared experience. They also have a need to talk as there has been no formal way to deal with their memories and trauma.”Are you ready,” the CNA team asks, “to sit with your ex-enemy and talk about peace, war, and reconciliation?
The CNA sessions with veterans begin by creating a safe space; it’s okay to speak completely openly and honestly here. “What was my motivation to go to war? How did I feel?” — in the workshops they are given safe space to delve into those feelings and memories. They are able to get beyond “competing narratives,” and in that space of trust, deep connections are made. Each former combatants’ training session ends with a combined action — visiting a cemetery together, or a battlefield. The most recent was a visit to a small town in Serbia to pay respects to those killed by a NATO bombing.
Each veteran who has gone through the CNA process becomes an ambassador for this kind of peace-building work and is able to spread the work to a wider audience. Vets still command a great deal of respect and are listened to.
The work CNA is doing is powerful, and yet also counter-cultural. Sadly, the mainstream — both political and media — continues to be very nationalistic. Politicians continue to manipulate nationalistic feelings. What is hopeful, though, is that more and more people do want to talk about what happened, do want to deal with the past and move into a new future. Adnan pointed to the example of Germany (particularly former West Germany) and how they dealt with their past. CNA has learned a lot from their example.
NETWORK FOR BUILDING PEACE:
This is a coalition of a number of peace-making and educational groups in BiH. We met with the project coordinators of both the Sarajevo and Banja Luka offices (Goran and Aleksandar, mentioned above). Banja Luka is the capital of “Republika Srpska” which comprises 49% of BiH; it is encouraging that the work of the Network covers both parts of the country.
Goran and Aleksandar needed to finish a conversation they had started before they met with S and me concerning how to respond to an incident earlier that week in which a group of men wearing masks attacked a Bosnijak (official term for Muslim Bosnians) near Banja Luka early in the morning while he was on his way to market and carved the initials “SSSS” (“CCCC” in Cyrillic) on his stomach. It is part of the emblem of Serbia and appears on the Serbian flag, and means “Only unity saves the Serbs;” it also carries obviously inflammatory nationalistic connotations. Goran and Aleksandar’s conversation about this incident was very illuminating: as they said, it could have been an isolated (though horrendous…) incident or it could have some sort of wider official endorsement behind it. There are rampant issues of unemployment throughout BiH. There is vast corruption among governmental officials within all three entities (Bosnijak, Serbian, Croatian). It therefore seems in the best interests of politicians to continue stoking the nationalistic fires to distract people from those wider issues, issues which could in fact unite them. This for me had strong echoes of the way people in the US seem to be manipulated by both moneyed and political interest groups into focusing on (non…) issues like gay marriage and the like. If the true issues of income disparity in our country, the weakening of the social safety network, underemployment and low minimum wage salaries, the enormous debt facing college students and the like were taken on full force it would unite a vast majority of our population and perhaps mobilize us into action. And this would be an enormous threat to people in positions of extreme political and economic power. Something like this did get underway about a year ago in BiH in the Plenum movement. It was short-lived but the slogan “We are hungry in three languages!” demonstrates that there is more to unity people here than to divide them.
Goran and Aleksandar gave us an insight into the political and economic lay of the land in present day BiH. We mentioned that we had been at the very impressive Sarajevo City Center earlier that day, had seen people who seemed to be quite affluent driving expensive cars and shopping at the mall. “Sarajevo is not the rest of BiH,” they told us, “much of the wealth you see here comes from the Diaspora — people who have left the country and send remittances back home. The unemployment rate throughout the rest of the country is somewhere near 60%. And the politicians of all three entities (Bosnijak, Croatian, and Republika Sprska) are extremely corrupt.” The average salary is $500 per month (even the little grocery shopping we did while in Sarajevo showed us that was not nearly enough to live on).
Aleksandar, who is a professor of history and sociology and has been involved in NGO work for over 10 years, observed, “Bosnia is still in the 19th Century. We are still in the mindset of being a colony, still ruled by ‘kings.’ Nationalism is still a power, once again there are new borders, new languages. We’re back to a pre World War I mindset.”
So where is the hope, I asked? “People are afraid of another war, so maybe they are ready to talk. And there’s also the ‘carrot’ of EU membership. That is the hope.”
There was a lot more to both of these conversations; I have tried to summarize them here. I am extremely grateful for the learnings and for the generosity of their time offered by Adnan, Goran, and Aleksandar, and am beginning to see what insights I can bring to contribute to the reconciliation work so badly needed in our own fractured society back in the US.
One further outcome from today: after hearing about the attack on the man near Banja Luka, S wondered if we were safe here — especially with our planned visit to Srebrenica the next day. Concurrently we heard about yet another mass shooting back in the US and I said, “ironically, we are much safer here where they had a brutal war just 20 years ago than we are in the US where gun violence can happen in malls, movie theatres, places of worship…
Next: Srebrenica and the Potocari memorial and cemetery.